Robbe-Grillet constructs a nontraditional plot in “The Replacement.” He interweaves three fragments: the interaction between the teacher and the pupils in the classroom, the schoolboy peering intently at the tree, and the story that is being read aloud in the classroom. Robbe-Grillet continually moves among the three, which disrupts chronology and subverts readers’ understanding of the elements in the story.
The narrator does not make clear the relationship between the schoolboy looking at the tree and what is happening in the classroom. Readers are not sure whether the teacher periodically looks out the window to observe the boy or something else. Thus the schoolboy could be a figment of the teacher’s imagination, or the students’ imagination, as the students cannot see out of the frosted windows.
Robbe-Grillet again confounds readers’ expectations for an understandable plot with his inclusion of a bit of the story that is being read aloud in the classroom. The first line that is read is, “Therefore, that evening, Joseph de Hagen, one of Philippe’s lieutenants, went to the Archbishop’s palace on the pretext of paying a courtesy call.” A few more passages are read until the final passage, which ends with that same sentence. The narrator does not clear up confusion as to whether the boy reading made a mistake at this point or whether the narrative moved back in time to the beginning of the story, making it difficult for readers to arrive at a conclusive interpretation.
The characterizations in the sketch are as enigmatic as the plot. The third-person narrator reports actions objectively, never allowing readers to see the motives behind actions. For example, no motivation is provided as to why the schoolboy is so fascinated with parts of the tree or why he is so desperate to grab some leaves. The interaction between the characters provides some clue to their personality but no definitive analyses. The narrator does not name the characters or their specific location, instead providing brief, surface descriptions of objects, actions, and dialogue. This lack of characterization makes it difficult to make distinctions between the pupils, especially since they all act in the same manner.
The narrator instead repeatedly describes the same actions, making it unclear whether the children are actually repeating actions or whether the plot is returning to the same scene over and over again. This occurs with the schoolboy who shifts his gaze to the branches and then to the bark of the tree. This pattern occurs several times during the sketch. The children also repeat certain movements. Their attention repeatedly shifts from the teacher to the book to the paper puppet hanging at the front of the classroom.
Occasionally, however, the narrator offers glimpses of what characters are feeling. The description of the teacher’s actions and words suggest he is angry and frustrated, and the children as a group regard their teacher with a “vaguely questioning or fearful expression.”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Published by Gale, 2002.